Child Care - 17/03/2021

17 March 2021



I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021. COVID-19 has left few industries and workplaces unaffected, but childcare centres and the educators who work there have faced some of the most significant challenges of any workplace during this pandemic. It was not helped by the shambolic approach of this government to this essential service, which had to continue throughout lockdown.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Morrison government refused to support this sector, despite the fact that centres saw their revenue dive overnight as national lockdowns were put in place. I saw this in my electorate, where centres were contacting me saying: 'We need to keep running, but what are we going to do? People are pulling their children out.' Meanwhile, essential workers needed to send their children to child care. It's an essential service, and it needs to be recognised as such. So, after pressure from Labor and from the sector, the previous minister announced that the government would provide free child care for all. It seemed like a fantastic announcement, except centres were not properly supported to provide this.

The truth was that childcare centres were expected to provide care for half the money and that many parents, including essential workers, were unable to access the care they needed under the Morrison government's scheme. My phone was running hot from centres in my electorate who couldn't cope with this change, where one minute families were taking their children out of child care and the next minute they wanted to expand hours, but with no support from the government. Centres were driven to the brink, with several childcare centres and providers needing my help during that. These providers know how vital their services are and that they would be required once again as restrictions eased. However, the Morrison government was missing in action.

Next the government established the exceptional circumstances fund. This was another confusing piece of policy, with only 39 per cent of applications approved. These applications were from centres in desperate need. I advocated on behalf of several centres in my electorate and then found that they received approval after I had contacted the minister, but it wasn't really clear why they had not been eligible in the first place and why they then were. Our system of government should not work like this, but often these rules under this government are so arbitrary.

So here we are today, being asked by the Morrison government to fix more mistakes. Of course, we will assist in this, because the sensible and largely technical changes in this bill are welcome. So we will support that. But this is a bigger problem. Childcare fees in Australia at the moment are out of control. In my electorate, in Canberra, we've always had high childcare fees, but they actually rose the most in the last year, to an average of $595 per week for full-time child care. That's simply unaffordable for most people who are considering whether to go back to the workforce after having a child or whether to increase their hours. I increasingly hear from women in Canberra that they can't afford to work that extra day or to return to work. It's simply not worth it. A big part of that discussion is, of course, that it is the women who tend to be the secondary earners. It is the woman who decides not to go back to work, because it's simply not affordable. This is a handbrake on our economy that we can't afford as we're trying to come out of a recession, trying to survive a global pandemic.

To make the situation even worse, the department of education predicts that childcare fees will increase by 4.1 per cent every year for the next four years. This will mean the government's childcare subsidy, which increases only at the inflation rate, will be quickly outstripped by the fee increases. The most damning figure is 35.9 per cent, the amount that childcare fees have soared since the election of the Liberal government.

Labor, on the other hand, has a plan that will make child care accessible, because we understand the juggle and the changes facing Australian families at the moment. We cannot afford an economy where many people—women in particular—are kept out of the workforce because of the cost of child care. We are also robbing our youngest Australians of an opportunity to benefit from high-quality early childhood education and care, which we know has lifelong benefits for children. I know that my son, who attends a day care centre in Canberra, learns so much. He socialises with other children, and the people there who care for him are incredibly dedicated, skilled and wonderful people. So it would be great to see the Morrison government actually show this sector the respect and the support that it needs as a vital service, as the high-quality education system that it is.

Child care is an economic driver. Research from the Australia Institute shows that making it easier for women to return to work will deliver billions in benefits for all Australians and help our economy recover faster from the economic downturn associated with the pandemic. We need to empower families to make choices that suit them. Notably, the number of parents saying they are not working mainly due to the cost of child care has skyrocketed by 23 per cent. That's an estimated 91,700 parents kept out of the workforce because they cannot afford the child care. This doesn't make economic sense, and it doesn't make sense if we want to be a country that addresses gender inequality.

We need change now, and I think that at the moment the women around Australia are feeling that they are not being listened to. They were protesting in their thousands outside this parliament on Monday, and the Prime Minister and the Minister for Women would not even come out and listen to them. Obviously, those issues were in particular around violence and sexism against women, but this is a broader issue about women needing to be supported by their government—needing to be supported to make choices about their career, how their family manages parenting and how that's shared between mums and dads—and they can't do this when the costs of child care are simply prohibitive. It's simply not worth working—end of conversation. For many women, that decision follows them into poverty in their later years because they haven't built up the superannuation and they haven't built up the income. It's even worse, obviously, if they end up single. For those years that they've taken out of the workforce raising their family, what do we give back to them? Nothing. This is yet another reason why it's so important for child care to be funded properly.

Labor's policy would actually make child care more affordable for 97 per cent of Australian families. We would scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which is the part that often sees women losing money from an extra day's work, and we would lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent. We'd also increase the childcare subsidy rates for every family earning less than $530,000, because this is an economic measure. This is a progressive policy, of course, but it is about delivering for all women the chance to return to the workforce and be supported.

Importantly, the ACCC would also be tasked with designing a price regulation mechanism to shed light on costs and fees and drive them down for good. One of the best aspects of our plan is that we would also commission the Productivity Commission to look into implementing a universal 90 per cent childcare subsidy for all families, and I think ultimately that is where we want to end up. Why do we see early childhood education—in the most important years of brain development—as different to school education, which we clearly see as important to have freely accessible for all families? Why do we see it as different? Why do we treat that workforce differently, when many of them have requirements on the training they need to do to care for our children? So that is a really important part of our policy and something that I hope we will look into further in the future. Labor really wants to get behind Australian families that are facing that juggle, that are trying to balance work and family. We want to back our economy. We don't want this handbrake on the economy that is meaning that people who want to go back to work cannot because they simply can't afford the child care.

Another important role that early childhood education and care centres provide, particularly not-for-profit centres—I think it's not talked about enough, but I certainly hear about it a lot in my electorate—is really important emergency care for children in difficult situations. I spoke to one provider in my electorate who was really concerned about the end of JobKeeper and the impact that it would have when many families simply could not continue to afford for their children to go to child care—she knew that there were families within her centre only getting regular meals while they were attending that centre.

This is such an important issue for families and for women, in my electorate and around the country. As I say, Canberra has some of the highest fees in the country, and it would be good to see families be able to make decisions free of that prohibitive cost. This is so that decisions can be made around other factors—around how much people want to work and how they want to balance parenting and engagement in the paid workforce—and also for young children to be able to experience the great benefits of early childhood education and care that are there.